Encourage ideas from employees

British novelist Penelope Fitzgerald once said, "The important thing is that a new idea should develop out of what is already there so that it soon becomes an old acquaintance."

Think about some of the ideas that have developed in the produce aisle from commodities that were already there: bulk or in-store capped strawberries morphed into one-pound clamshell packs, bulk-packed grapes (which were a safety hazard and a shrink nightmare) became wonderful, pre-packaged units, same thing for asparagus - from bulk to pre-banded.

The list goes on, and all were the brainchild of one or more people in the business.

It reminds me of a little history about, of all things, McDonald's, and the advent of the Filet-O-Fish sandwich. I know, is that a hard right turn into space or what? Bear with me.

The story goes that in 1960, it began at a small McDonald's in Monfort Heights, Ohio. Lou Groen was the new owner who was struggling to keep his franchise afloat.

The burger giant was still in its infancy at the time, and competition was fierce. Groen, who put up his life savings to join founder and company owner Ray Kroc, nearly had to give up his franchise.

To top it all off, in the mostly Catholic area that Groen's McDonalds was located, Lent was on the horizon.

I like that ideas sprout not necessarily from stuffy corporate board rooms but from the store-level, too.

At that time, Catholics refrained from eating meat on Fridays, and almost completely in the 40 days prior to Easter Sunday. Groen needed a good, non-beef sandwich to promote. So he pitched his fish sandwich idea to Kroc, who initially rejected it.

Groen persisted, however, and Kroc finally gave in, allowing a single-day test trial. On that day, the Ohio franchise sold 250 Filet-O-Fish sandwiches. It was instantly put on the menu and was soon promoted throughout the McDonald's chain.

It was a hit.

(Today, McDonalds sells about 23% of its yearly Filet-O-Fish during Lent).

I know. Not every idea performs like this. In fact, most don't. But I like that ideas sprout not necessarily from stuffy corporate board rooms but from the store-level, too.

That moment when someone asks a simple question, "Hey wouldn't it make more sense to sell packaged herbs in smaller quantities … to promote pre-cut fruit in the value-added refrigerated case … to hire retired produce people to hang out on the sales floor for four hours on a busy Saturday, showing people how to pick a good melon?

Most ideas tend to fizzle, but knowing that one in 10 may be a winner is enough to solicit ideas from all levels of this crazy fresh produce business. Retail executives and produce supervisors should always be on the lookout for what's working, and like the humble fish sandwich, take it to the next level.

Armand Lobato works for the Idaho Potato Commission. His 40 years' experience in the produce business span a range of foodservice and retail positions. E-mail [email protected].

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